A year ago this week, Tyrion Lannister gave his now-famous speech, Bran became Bran the Broken and the king of Westeros, Jon Snow ventured north, and Game of Thrones came to an end. In honor of the conclusion of the last piece of monoculture, The Ringer will spend all week looking back on Thrones—focusing not just on its final season, but celebrating its entire eight-season run, reminiscing about its host of memorable characters, and pondering where some of them may be one year later.
One of the many lessons of Game of Thrones is that nothing stands on its own. This isn’t to say TV’s foremost proponent of realpolitik was secretly preaching New Age tenets like the oneness of everything—just that actions come with unintended, far-reaching consequences. Pushing a kid from a window can start a world war. Marrying for love can get your family massacred. Ignoring climate change—sorry, the White Walkers—can doom humanity to extinction. You get the idea.
So when Game of Thrones totally, epically, catastrophically messed up its ending, it affected more than just Game of Thrones.
The final, truncated two seasons of Thrones have been widely, extensively, and justifiably criticized, leaving book readers yearning for a better alternative and audiences wondering whether they’ll ever see a phenomenon reach the heights of earlier seasons. But while Jeff Bezos may have made headlines for throwing his hat, and something like a billion dollars of Amazon’s money, in the ring, one of the main participants in the ongoing treasure hunt for the next Thrones is the company that gave us the first one: HBO.
The cable network, soon to be joined by a high-profile streaming service bearing its name but operated by parent company WarnerMedia, has been working to secure its post-Thrones future since Thrones was still on the air. Under relatively new president Casey Bloys, the once notoriously selective outlet has ramped up production to compete with omnibus rivals like Netflix and the Disney-Fox-Hulu nexus. That escalation includes projects like Euphoria that expand HBO’s purview into genres, like teen shows, which were once outside its areas of expertise. It also includes shows like Westworld, as well as upcoming projects from Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams: dense, sci-fi-skewed hours with enough plot and world-building to support extensive close reads.
But the most important element of HBO’s post-Thrones game plan is also the hardest to get right: turning Thrones from a stand-alone sensation into a baseline for future endeavors. Thrones has long been compared to Star Wars—first for its epic scale and cultural reach, then in a less flattering light for their similarly unsatisfying conclusions. For now, the comparison is largely aspirational. Both franchises face uncertain paths forward, yet only one is a true franchise, with three full trilogies, several spinoff films, and a few TV shows already under its belt. An underwhelming origin story for its signature antihero is, at this point, a problem HBO would love to have.
The idea of more Thrones in some form or another has been in the air since at least spring 2017, when Variety reported HBO was taking a bakeoff approach to figuring out its next move, hiring four different writers to pen four different pilot scripts for a potential spinoff. The idea of exploring multiple routes at the same time fit with both the rhythms of TV production, in which many ideas enter the development pipeline and precious few leave as finished series, and the size of George R.R. Martin’s painstakingly crafted universe, which left almost infinite possibilities for where and when to set a new story.
Around the same time, HBO committed an exceptional public relations blunder for a brand otherwise beloved by critics, talents, and tastemakers. In a rush to reassure audiences that more was on the way—not just from the Thrones universe, but the Thrones creative team—the network announced a concept clearly in need of refinement away from the public eye: Confederate, an alternate history depicting a world where the Confederate States of America, and therefore slavery, still exists. Created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who managed to turn Martin’s dense doorstops into massive crowd-pleasers, Confederate involved collaborators like executive producers Nichelle Tramble and Malcolm Spellman, but its most visible principals and imperfect spokespeople were two white men. Vociferous backlash ensued—clearly not what HBO was expecting when it triumphantly unveiled Benioff and Weiss’s next big swing, but definitely what it should have anticipated.
In 2018, HBO shifted attention back to Thrones itself by ordering a pilot from Kick-Ass writer Jane Goldman, declaring a winner of its informal competition (though it was quick to clarify other candidates weren’t disqualified, just still under consideration). Informally referred to by many, including Martin himself, as The Long Night, the potential series would be set millennia before the events of Game of Thrones, the last time the White Walkers posed an existential threat to human life. Naomi Watts signed on as the lead, a significant break from Thrones’ use of then-unknowns for most of its roles, and production commenced under the direction of SJ Clarkson.
Years later, neither of these early leads has panned out. Confederate died a quieter death, going silent after the initial furor died down before getting an easy out when Benioff and Weiss took a nine-figure deal at Netflix, severing their relationship with HBO. Last fall, The Prequel Not Officially Known as The Long Night earned more notice when HBO declined to bring the pilot to series. Pilots are trial balloons, and it’s completely standard for executives to decide the experiment didn’t work out and move on (or, in the case of the original Game of Thrones, have it reshot almost entirely). The not-quite-cancellation was noteworthy for its Thrones adjacency, of course, but also its timing: The announcement came less than six months after the widely watched, yet universally derided finale. Was the slapdash home stretch of Thrones so disastrous that it sunk attempts to build on its appeal?
As it stands now, the only remaining home for a wider Thrones universe is House of the Dragon, a second Thrones spinoff that bypassed the pilot process altogether, earned a series order, and is now on pace to air in 2022, barring pandemic-related production delays. Where the Goldman-Watts pilot would’ve been a more original narrative filling in the earliest gaps in Martin’s story, House of the Dragon will be drawn from Fire & Blood, a Martin-penned companion book that details the arc of the Targaryen dynasty. Along with writer Ryan Condal, the show will also be co-run by Miguel Sapochnik, the director behind some of Thrones’ most impressive action sequences, including “Hardhome” and “The Battle of the Bastards.” Neither Goldman nor Clarkson, by contrast, had previous experience with the Thrones machine.
Compared to The Long Night, House of the Dragon is more of a known quantity, a fact that seems directly linked to its accelerated path to production. Speaking on the differences between the two projects, Bloys told Deadline, “One of the things I think Jane [Goldman] took on beautifully, which was a challenge, there was a lot more world creation because she set hers 8,000 years before [Thrones], so it required a lot more. That is a big swing. One of the things about House of Dragon, there is a text, there is a book, so that made it a little bit more of a road map for a series order.”
In other words: With more of a road map, there’s less room for the kind of off-book riffing that landed Benioff and Wiss in such hot water with fans. Snobs like me love to complain about corporate micromanagement of sprawling properties like Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe; forcing individual chapters to hit pre-scripted beats, the thinking goes, stifles creativity and innovation. (It’s no coincidence the most popular Star Wars movie among this set, The Last Jedi, is the result of giving Rian Johnson free rein to go in a more counterintuitive direction.) The situation is slightly different when said beats are laid out by a veteran storyteller like Martin, not a C-suite. Still, it’s hard not to read a heavy dose of caution into Bloys’s reasoning—that future Thrones stories may be safer playing by the (literal) book.
A year into a post-Thrones world, the Westeros Extended Universe remains more dream than reality. HBO has thus far invested a substantial amount in that dream, because it represents their best shot at reassembling the unprecedented audience Game of Thrones once gathered together. But turning an unlikely juggernaut into a steady stream of content requires deliberate adjustment. When Game of Thrones made fantasy palatable for the prestige TV age, it was a pleasant surprise. When, not if, the next Thrones property debuts to great fanfare, it’ll come with the tradeoff all aspiring empires make: spontaneity for reliability.